February 2020: Meet the Au Lab



What is the main focus of your lab?

We study cortical interneurons, which are the inhibitory, short-range neurons of the cortex. They establish a distributed, repetitive network that modulates and regulates almost all cortical functions. They are also a cell type of interest for a number of diseases including epilepsy and neuropsychiatric disorders. Our main focus is on how cortical interneurons develop and functionally integrate during embryonic development and early childhood.

How long have you had your lab? When did you join Columbia University?

I started my lab in September, 2015, which is when I joined Columbia

How big is your lab currently?

We currently have 3 graduate students and 4 volunteers.

Where is your lab located?

We are located in Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, 14th floor, Room 401.

Current affairs:

What are the most exciting projects/directions in the lab at this moment?

We currently have a manuscript under a review in which we have identified a novel pathway that regulates the timecourse of cortical interneuron development. We also have projects underway studying early fate specification, interneuron arealizaton and early circuit formation.

What are the biggest accomplishments that your lab recently had?

We recently published a paper in Neuron and we were also fortunate enough to have our submission accepted for that issue’s cover (September 4th, 2019).


What are the model systems that your lab is using? 

We are primarily a mouse lab, making use of mouse genetics in vivo, primary culture and directed differentiation of mouse ES lines. We have also recently started working with human iPSC lines.

What are the key techniques that your lab is using? 

We employ a number of experimental approaches that are common for developmental biologists (molecular biology, mouse genetics, etc.). But we employ one technique that is fairly specialized: ultrasound backscatter microscopy-guided cell transplantation. We use this approach as an in vivo assay of ES-derived interneuron development. We are open to working with other groups who are interested in adopting this approach.

What facilities or equipment does your absolutely lab rely upon? 

We would not be able to function without tiling confocal microscopes. We make use of departmental and ZMBBI core scopes as well as our own set-up in different capacities.

Who shall be contacted with questions about equipment, resources and training?

You can contact me at: ea2515_at_cumc.columbia.edu.


What's your best approach to mentoring trainees in the lab?

I don’t think there’s one best approach. I try to tailor my mentoring to the individual. Some people need more technical guidance, whereas others can benefit from clarifying the underlying logic of their experiments. One thing I do emphasize is to discuss experiments and results based on a working model that I’ll often sketch out on the whiteboard in my office.

Who were your most influential mentors/role models in science and what did you learn from them?

I’ve learned from so many people over the years. I guess that the most influential was my postdoc supervisor, Gord Fishell. He prioritized conducting lab meetings as an unhurried venue to fully discuss data, experimental design, and refining the logic of a study. I’ve tried to replicate the same environment in my own group.

Can you recommend courses/lectures in Columbia University that would be most beneficial for students/postdocs?

Attend a regular journal club. It’s important to not only read recent papers to stay updated, but it’s also important to discuss them thoroughly and take a ‘deep dive’ into the data and how the work was presented. You’ll find that the process of thoroughly digesting the work of others will positively influence how you conduct your own projects.

What would be your career advice for students/postdocs?

Keep an open mind. It’s easy when you’re in the thick of things to develop a case of tunnel vision in how you perform experiments and how you interpret your results. Remember that unexpected findings are often the most informative if you take the time to think it through.

Are you accepting rotating students at the moment?


Lab management:

How do members of your lab celebrate accomplishments?

We get together outside the lab on a semi-regular basis. Competition is often involved  to keep things interesting – Escape the Room, cookie bakeoff, etc.

Does your lab have any fun traditions?

We have an ongoing potluck dinner morbidly called “Last Meal”. The basic concept is that if you were to find yourself on death row, what would you request as your last meal? Once that’s been decided, everyone else prepares a dish that complements it.

What is the key to running a successful lab

That’s a great question, one that I feel I’m only starting to get a handle on. I try to maintain a positive environment where everyone comes in every morning feeling excited to work on their projects. Creating and reinforcing that environment feeds forward into all other aspects.

What was the most exciting part about starting your new lab?

It’s been immensely rewarding to be involved in every aspect of building a research group from the ground up.

Stem Cell Directions:

What are the most important recent developments in the stem cell field?

Self assembly of stem cell-derived neurons as a means to study brain development and species differences in development.

Which stem cell conferences does your lab attend?

Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, NYSCF Annual Meeting, Gordon Conference on Neural Development


 What was the main reason of you joining CSCI? What are the beneficial aspects of CSCI membership for your lab?

Columbia has an incredible stem cell research community. We are very excited to be part of it. My trainees and I benefit from learning about stem cell research in other fields and always get valuable feedback when they present at the Work-In-Progress series.

 What do you plan to bring to the CSCI community?

I help organize the CSCI Seminar Series and ocasionally meet with and advise CSCI trainees. In future, I hope to contribute to other aspects, whether that is formal or informal collaborations or sharing my expertise with other CSCI groups.